Group H: Belgium back on world stage

Group H is last and least when it comes to overall quality, with the group’s only real contender lacking any history of international success.

The cat’s out of the bag with Belgium, who have staggering amount of young talent that is both exciting and potentially terrifying for opponents. They will not face a real test until the knockout stage, with the three remaining team’s in H fielding sides that are average at best.

Russia’s defensive stronghold looked impressive during qualifying, but a lack of creativity in the final third hurts them. South Korea might be the most talented team is Asia, but it’s been difficult for them to keep any consistency over an extended period of time.

Algeria round out the group and are probably the weakest team in the tournament, advancing on the away goals rule in a very weak qualifying group. This is Belgium’s group to lose. And if they do, it will be embarrassing.

How they’ll finish

  1. Belgium
  2. Russia
  3. South Korea
  4. Algeria

Algeria

SPI Rank: 66; FIFA World Ranking: 22

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Group stage

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 13.8 percent*

Algeria is by all accounts the worst team in the tournament, advancing through CAF qualifying after drawing a two-leg playoff against Burkina Faso. This is disappointing, as it deprived most of the population form learning there’s a country called Burkina Faso. 

It’s disappointing for Algeria too, because Burkina Faso were the lowest ranked team to make the African playoff round, and are currently ranked as the 12th-best team on the continent.

While this team has technically entered under the name Algeria, they have more players born in France than anywhere else — 16 in total.

It’s a bit of cruel cycle for the The Desert Foxes (oh, cool name) who often see their brightest stars: Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema, Zinadine Zidane, etc., head north for French glory, while the Algerians are relegated to French talent unsuitable for national team recognition.

Now that doesn’t mean they’re all bad. Sofiane Feghouli is the best French-Algerian on the team and the best player on the entire squad. The 22-year-old is attacking midfielder is a terrific passer, with 8 assists in 10 starts for Spanish club Valencia this season. 

Algeria are mostly disorganized and have a weird obsession with taking long shots that likely stems for an inability to build up play. They may have a savior up front in Islam Slimani, who scored five goals in seven games during qualifying earning him a deal with Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon.

Algeria lack enough talent throughout the squad to be a real threat in Brazil. Their inability to keep the ball is a key component to their dysfunction, and if they can somehow mange to rectify this — then, and only then — will have have a punchers chance in Group H.

Belgium

SPI Rank: 15; FIFA World Ranking: 11

2010 World Cup: Did not qualify

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 74.0 percent

The “sleepers” of the tournament aren’t really sleepers at all. Everybody should know by now that Belgium have enough talent on their young squad to compete with anyone in this tournament. Amazingly, Belgium hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 2002 and still haven’t qualified for a European Championship since 2000.

Don’t let the last decade of international ineptitude fool you, the Red Devils were dominant in UEFA qualifying, going undefeated in 10 games. It’s a cliché, but with an average age of 26, this really seems like the beginning of a golden generation for Belgium.

Much will be made about Belgium’s excitement in the attacking half — and for good reason — but defense is where they could really set themselves apart. In addition to helping keep the team go undefeated during qualifying, Belgium only allowed 4 goals in 10 games during that span.

The center-back pairing is one of the best in Brazil, featuring Belgium’s most capped player — 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten — and Belgium’s best player, Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany.

Kompany has been the starting center-back and captain for Premier League championship winning sides in 2012 and 2014. Kompany is a complete modern day central defender, as comfortable with the ball at his feet as he is lunging into slide tackles.

In attack Belgium boast six players spread throughout the midfield who all are capable of wreaking havoc on opposing defenses.

The best of this bunch in Chelsea’s Edin Hazard, who has established himself as the closest thing the Premier League has to Cristiano Ronaldo, and who has one of the best YouTube compilations I’ve ever seen. Hazard will do his best to link up with Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku, who scored about a goal every two games for Everton this season.

Part of what makes Belgium a favorite of so many is the significant amount of EPL talent, including the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Adam Januzaj (Both Manchester United), Moussa Dembele, Nacer Chadli, Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham) and Kevin Mirallas (Everton).

Add to this crop of stars two of the best goalkeepers under the age of 25 in Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet, and Belgium could be looking to improve on their best ever fourth-place finish in 1986.

There may be problems with width as Belgium like to start essentially four central defenders along the back line, but it would seem they have enough talent to do just fine attacking up the middle.

Everybody knows by now this team is legit, and winning this group should be a cake walk if all goes according to plan. If they can manage to get the very best from players like Hazard and Kompany, watch out come the knock out stages.

Russia

SPI Rank: 17; FIFA World Ranking: 19

2010 World Cup: Did not qualify

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 72.6 percent

Russia qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 12 years and for only the third time ever after an impressive UEFA qualifying campaign that saw them best Portugal to win their group.

What’s even more impressive is how they did it. With legendary defensive-minded manager Fabio Capello running the show, the Russians allowed only a goal every two matches during that spell.

Capello’s proclivity to shut down the opponent is a perfect fit for a Russian side with a very talented and experienced defensive unit. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is both terrifically skilled and a leader between the sticks, but won’t need to holler too much at one of the most experienced center-back pairings in Brazil.

34-year-old Sergei Ignashevich has played in nearly 100 games for the Russian national team, and is joined by the captain and his teammate at CSKA Moscow Vasili Berezutski. The pairing plays over 30 games together a season and helps make this back-line extremely tough to break down.

There aren’t a lot of stars in the attacking half — or really at all — for this Russian team, but Sbornaya will look to 23-year-old Alexander Kokorin as their liberator going forward.  Kokorin scored four goals in eight appearances during qualifying and had a breakout year for Dynamo Moscow scoring 13 in 25 games.

The Russians like to hail players as the “future of Russian football,” and Kokorin currently hold that “title,” but his performance in a wide open group will make it much more clear how good the youngster really is.

Russia like to use crosses from the flanks as their primary means of scoring, creating a scoring chance on one of every six crosses during qualifying, tied for the most amongst the group winners according to ESPN stats & information.

This team is not flashy. They don’t have any big names and play a conservative style that suits their Italian manager.

They should probably make it past the group stage for the first time in history based on the favorable draw, but a round of 16 match up against the Group G runner-up (either Portugal, Germany or the U.S.) will make advancing to the quarter-final a very tall task.

South Korea

SPI Rank: 33; FIFA World Ranking: 57

2010 World Cup: Eliminated in Round of 16

Odds to advance to knock-out stages: 39.5 percent

The second set of Red Devils in Group G, South Korea are called by some the most talented team in Asia, but will have to gel under a new manager if they want to rediscover their World Cup success.

And World Cup success Korea has had. This is a team that incredibly made it to the semi-finals in 2002 when the tournament was split between their home country and Japan.

2014′s version probably doesn’t have that much quality, but they still have some sublime talent throughout the squad that could put them through to the round of 16.

Arsenal’s Park Chu-Young is the most likely to score goals on this squad — after leading the team in qualifying with six in seven games — and is a significant threat on the counter attack.

Park will be flanked by winger Son Heung-Min, a 21-year-old who is a wizard with the ball at his feet. Some think Son is already the best player for his country and is absolutely fearless at taking defenders on one-on-one.

The most recognizable name might be Sunderland’s Ki Sung-Yueng, who will occupy a similar role that he has for his club, as the string puller in the center of the park, who sets others up and distributes out wide.

Korea aren’t going to blow the doors off you, but they have some good players and are in a group that features only one juggernaut. They have a decent shot to advance, but will get no further than that.

* Percentages based on 10,000 simulations of the six group games using ESPN’s Soccer Power Index.